Category Archives: Universities

Underpaying Casual Staff and Forgetting Education: The Australian University Formula

Scandalous underpayment has become common fare at Australia’s universities.  An inverse relationship can be identified here: the wealthier the institution, the more likely it will short change staff and avoid coughing up the cash.  If anything is coughed up, it will be meagrely rationed.  We are not all in this together.

The casualization of the Australian university workforce is a process that has chugged along for three decades or so.  Doing so alleviates the need to pay an ongoing workforce in conditions that are less secure in terms of employment but more beneficial to the institution’s management line.  There is no need to pay sick leave; holidays are unremunerated.  Lengthy dry spells exist for such casuals during times where teaching does not take place.  They are voiceless, fearful and oppressed.

The University of Melbourne, for instance, possesses a chest of AU$4.43 billion in reserves. But keeping in the best traditions of nineteenth century capitalism and working poor exploitation, it has 72.9 percent of staff in insecure employment.

Not happy with such a favourable state of affairs, universities have taken COVID-19 as a call to further axe, underpay and trim.  In July, a survey conducted by the University of Sydney Casuals Network in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences found that casual academics have been underpaid during the COVID-19 crisis.  The findings are grim: 77% concerned about losing employment; 82% reporting that extra unpaid work had been done in the first semester of 2020 and 60% “likely to leave academia.”   The move to online forms of course delivery have also seen employees within the Faculty incur additional expenses.

What is discouragingly interesting in the survey is that coronavirus was merely a catalyst for inspiring a situation already rotten. It did not help that the University of Sydney’s reliance on its Chinese student base, as with a good number of Australian teaching institutions, was scandalously disproportionate.

This month, the institution finally admitted that it had underpaid staff.  The errors, it assured critics, were unintentional.  Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence went so far as to suggest that the university had been vigilant in pursuing the matter.  The situation was revealed “after we proactively initiated a preliminary review of payroll records”.  With dreary predictability, it transpired that the “identified errors mainly affect some professional casual employees.”  While seemingly apologetic, Spence insisted on minimising the nature of the harm, with a view to placating the corporate investor: “we expect that the total amount involved will be less than 0.5% of our annual payroll cycle.”

The list of offenders is bulking.  In June, the University of New South Wales Business School was the subject of interest, having underpaid casual academic staff for a goodly number of years.  “Any underpayments for existing or former casual academic staff identified in the review,” noted the university’s official publication, “will be fully rectified, including payment of additional superannuation and interest.”

The University of Melbourne is in the process of repaying up to 1,500 academics across four faculties in what was nothing less than wage theft.  Central to the dispute was a rebadging of tutorials as “practice classes”, a typical obscenity of management speak.  Different wording, different level of pay (a third, to be exact).  Cheerily for students and underpaid staff, only three minutes had been allocated to mark student assessments.  Within an hour, the marker was required to digest 4,000 words and comment on the assessments.  A miserable return for all, except for the miscellany of unnecessary departments and services that support the modern university.

Others have also joined the underpayment club, much of it centred on the speedy manner academics are supposedly meant to dispatch assessments.  The University of Queensland, University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and Murdoch University have been identified for practices of low marking rates and, in some cases, ungraded assessments.

At RMIT, the marking rate has proven a touch more generous than its Melbourne University counterpart: a princely 10 minutes, but still absurdly small in halving the previous allocation.  It is now the subject of a claim being made to the Fair Work Commission by the National Tertiary Education Union.

Such employment practices in Australian universities have been aided and abetted.  Alison Barnes, the NTEU president, has mastered the art of speaking with a forked tongue.  She boasts about the NTEU recovering millions in lost wages for members and promises “to launch a wave of class action.  We do not believe wage theft is confined to the ten universities that have admitted to it.”

The same sanctimonious Barnes, along with fellow national executives, attempted to foist a “national framework” upon members and university management to accept some 18,000 job losses across the tertiary sector along with reduced pay.  It was advertised in a manner least candid and most monstrous.  “The Jobs Protection Framework,” noted an NTEU propaganda booklet in May, “means everyone gets a lifejacket.  Casuals, fixed term, permanent, low paid, high paid, everyone.”

The measure was defeated by a grass roots revolt of some fury culminating in the NTEU Fightback campaign, a surprise to both union executives and management.  17 universities rejected the plan. But from the still burning cinders, some Vice-Chancellors saw conspiratorial hope.  La Trobe University Vice-Chancellor John Dewar urged colleagues to take heart: the collapse of the framework had not been “a complete failure because …. it has shown what could be done through a collaborative approach between unions and management”.

Dewar’s assessment had a certain ring of truth to it.  Undeterred by its abysmal failure, the NTEU executive has gone full blackguard, making piecemeal deals with individual universities to achieve the same object.  This initiative is taking place alongside handholding gestures with big business in an effort to secure more Commonwealth government funding.  Barnes, for instance, is encouraged by the words of Business Council Executive Jennifer Westacott praising the need for leaders with a “humanities mindset”, one understanding of “the human condition.”  When will platitudes end?

The University of Adelaide was this month’s notable scalp for tertiary sector skulduggery, with Acting Vice-Chancellor Mike Brooks accepting a deal between management and the NTEU’s national executive “in principle”.  Under clause 19.2 of the agreement, wage reductions can be made to “an amount equivalent to a maximum total of 15 percent of staff member’s salary in any given pay period.”  Reductions will be achieved via the purchasing of compulsory leave, deferrals of pay rises, the scrapping of annual holiday pay loading.

The union movement is in freefall.  The rank-and-file have been abandoned by the executives within the NTEU who have long collaborated with university management through such beastly compromises as the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.  The only enterprise shown in such agreements tends to be the bargaining away of basic rights and liberties.  Work casualization has been one of its most noxious fruits.  The battle, in short, is being waged both within the union movement and against university management. Much bloodletting is promised and the one word not mentioned in all of this: education.  Having been abandoned, humiliated and shamed, may it rest in undisturbed peace.

Harvard’s Fossil Fuels Formula: Engagement before Withdrawal

“Know the true value of time; snatch, seize, and enjoy every moment of it,” urged the Earl of Chesterfield in a letter of advice to his son penned in 1749.  “No idleness, no laziness, no procrastination: never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”  This has not tended to be the view of university governors the world over, notably in the field of ethical investments.  The elite heavy weights have shown their flabbiness in the area, dragging in their approach to matters of environment and the climate.  Money is just that; where it goes, in terms of investment, is of little moral consequence, lacking smell and ethical baggage.  Industry is there to be, and here, the word is essential, engaged.

Harvard University, one of the wealthiest teaching and research institutions on the planet with an endowment of $41 billion, is something of a specialist in this.  In 2013, the university’s President Drew Gilpin Faust adopted the position of “engagement over withdrawal” on the subject of fossil fuel divestments.  At the time, Faust considered any full divestment measure as unwarranted and unwise: the endowment fund was to be seen in purely self-beneficial terms, “a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.”

Playing the fiddle of an amoral politician, Faust attempted different measures of dismissiveness and reassurance: climate change did pose “a serious threat to our future – and increasingly our present”, and the university would be incorporating “environmental, social and governance” into its investments, thereby aligning with “investors’ fiduciary duties”.  Such an approach guaranteed an indefinite series of postponements on the matter.

By April 2017, the Harvard Management Company, the entity responsible for managing the finances of the corporation, felt that some move was required.  Colin Butterfield, heading the natural resources section at the HMC, accepted that climate change was a “huge problem” and that a “pause” in fossil fuel investments would take place.  Slyly, Butterfield shifted the focus, distinguishing between direct and indirect investments in the industry.  “What I can tell you is, from my area, I could honestly say that I doubt – I can’t say never, because never say never – but I doubt that we would ever make a direct investment with fossil fuels.”

In 2019, Harvard’s new broom, Lawrence Bacow still preferred “engaging with industry”.  In a surprise appearance at a forum hosted by Divest Harvard and the Harvard Political Union in April that year, he gave a model lesson on intellectual skiving: Teach, research and convince, and the industry itself will change.  Till that was done, the fossil fuel matter could be postponed.  “We need to engage with those whose behaviour we need to change.  We need to engage with industry.  We do that through scholarship; we do that through our teaching.”

Donning his weighty business hat, Bacow played the role of cold realist, warning against any policy coitus interruptus.  Divesting from fossil fuels was not the same as tobacco, where a full-scale enterprise of withdrawal through the university from research to labs could be implemented.  “The day after, if we were to divest, we’re going to turn on the lights.  We would still be dependent on fossil fuels.”

It has been a long, acrimonious battle.  The Harvard President and Fellows have tended to swat the claims away, regarding them as callow and unrealistic.  The students, in turn, have sought to have their case taken seriously, engaging in their own little bit of climate change lawfare.  In 2014, a lawsuit was lodged in Suffolk County Superior Court in Massachusetts, featuring an 11-page complaint and 167 pages of supporting exhibits asking the court to force divestment on the students’ behalf.  The measure failed at first instance and on appeal, though campaign managed, along the way, to gather support from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, climate change scientist James Hansen and the Cambridge City Council.

The central problem in such climate change litigation remains one of conviction.  Courts refuse to cast a distant eye upon the future, expecting evidence to be as immediate, clear and incontestable as possible.  The argument by the students was precisely one of current action to prevent environmental dystopia, a case for future, potentially imperiled generations.  Instead, the students failed to show they had legal standing to challenge fossil fuel investments for their negative impacts on academic freedom and education at Harvard.  Their interests were “widely shared” with thousands of their peers at Harvard; their connection with the subject matter was not sufficiently “specific” or “personal”; and their allegations on financial mismanagement were too speculative to be accepted.

Both the Massachusetts Appellate Court and the lower court also came to the same conclusion on rejecting the merits of a new civil wrong on the “intentional investment in abnormally dangerous activities”.  The students had, in the higher court’s assessment, “brought their advocacy, fervent and articulate and admirable as it is, to a forum that cannot grant the relief they seek.”

The Bacow formula of engagement has been tinkered with, if ever so slightly.  As a tentative nod to the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, and in response to a resolution adopted by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in February, the endowment was instructed to develop an approach to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from its investment portfolio by 2050.  Full Postponement Bacow had now transitioned to Partial Postponement Bacow.  “Harvard’s endowment should be a leader in shaping pathways to a sustainable future,” he wrote to members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “With this in mind, the corporation has directed the Harvard Management Company (HMC) to set itself on a path to decarbonize the overall endowment portfolio.”

In doing so, few toes will be tread upon in this new approach, as it “considers the investment portfolio as a whole, rather than simply targeting the suppliers and producers of fossil fuels.”  Possible partners, he warned, would not be demonised, as they had “committed to transitioning to carbon neutrality and to funding research on alternative fuels and on strategies to decarbonize the economy.”

The reaction from Divest Harvard showed an expected mixture of “I told you so” satisfaction tinged with regret.  “Until today, the administration has claimed that the endowment should not be used for political purposes.”  Finally, due to the pressure of student, faculty and alumni, Harvard had “acknowledged its duty to mitigate the emissions its endowment has been fuelling for decades.”  Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard was less complimentary: the university had taken “a step in the right direction”, but the plan was “insufficient”, making fossil fuel companies “cooperative partners”.

Former college president James L. Powell assessed the nature of managing an endowment sternly in a recent letter to the New York Times.  “The fundamental principle of endowment management is that future student generations should benefit to the same extent as the current generation.  By investing in the very companies whose products cause dangerous global warming, Harvard violates that principle and bets that it can profit from the success of those companies.” Such betting is set to continue – at least till 2050.

Treacherous Accommodations: Australian Universities, Coronavirus and the NTEU

They have been struggling to keep their membership numbers healthy, but the latest antics of the executive that make up Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union suggest why.  For a good period of time, Australian unions have been losing teeth, and not all of it can be put down to the measures of the federal government to pull them.  In the university sector, where unionism should be intellectually vibrant and committed, the issue is one of corporatist accommodation.  Do not rock the boat of management; give executives vast, byzantine powers of disciplining staff; do little to criticise the obscene remuneration packages of the Vice Chancellors and their tribunes.

With the NTEU being, in many instances, retainers for university executives, rather than defenders of the academic work force, the email circulated to members on April 8 by the general secretary Matthew McGowan could hardly have come as a shock.  These are trying times in response to coronavirus, and Universities Australia chairperson Deborah Terry has promised the loss of 21,000 jobs over the next six months in the tertiary sector.

Having revealed that the NTEU had “approached a number of Vice Chancellors, Universities Australia, and the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association to press the need for an urgent national dialogue”, McGowan outlined the grim agenda.  “To protect jobs, we may need to consider measures that we would never normally consider.  These may include deferral of pay rises, providing the ability to direct taking of leave, or other cost saving measures.”

The letter is replete with the weasel words that have come to characterise NTEU-University “dialogues”.  Any harsh measures taken are to be “temporary and proportional to the loss at each university”.  There needed to be “transparency and oversight”.  (Australian universities do a good line in unaccountability and opaque governance, making such suggestions mildly amusing, if not downright ridiculous.)

Having outlined a position of forfeiture and compromise, the sell-out narrative is given the usual garnish: the federal government should throw money at the sector with drunken relish; a “national discussion” (tea anybody?) needed to be had about future international student enrolments.  And to convince the membership that the NTEU executive was being somehow compassionate, McGowan was careful to underline the objectives of the negotiations.  “Our primary aim is to protect jobs and to ensure that job cuts are the last resort. Of course, we believe that universities must divert funds from capital works and other non-staff related expenditure, as well as to take cuts to senior management salaries before staff are asked to bear the burden.”

No “of course” about it.  The NTEU national executive is giving the most generous of signals to university management to make swingeing cuts as long as they, angelic types as they are, make a few concessions of their own.  Its method is a tested and failed one: cooperation (“you can get everything you want through cooperation”, says ACTU secretary Sally McManus), or, more accurately, collaboration.

The ultimate purpose of this arrangement is to create a framework of salvation, with more profitable universities supposedly buffering weaker, less profitable ones.  NTEU National President Alison Barnes, with characteristic lack of conviction, speaks of this framework as “a temporary measure to provide staff and the union with a higher degree of certainty and security than would otherwise occur in an industrial free-for-all.”

The way this will be executed will be through that vehicle that has become a symbol of some mockery: the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.  While the NTEU tends to congratulate itself about the “better pay, better conditions” line, the pathetically modest improvements, such EBAs are policing tools, controlling staff with such Orwellian notions as the code of conduct and the odd bribe.

Voting on the new EBAs is bound to take place at speed and with little information handy for NTEU members.  The cheeky changes made by the federal government to the Fair Work Act on the time needed to consult over changes to pay and conditions – from one week to a mere 24 hours – is a sign of what is to come.

The NTEU branches have not been impressed, but they can hardly be surprised by the temptations of such feeble treachery.  There has been little in the way of demanding heads on platters and flesh for the gallows.  The preference for the membership is for indignant voting, be they ones of censure or rude notes of awakening.  At the University of Sydney, a vote of 117 to 2 was taken to censure the NTEU national executive for “commencing negotiations on significant concessions”.

As for the universities themselves, the cuts have begun in earnest.  “Non-essential” research and professional staff casuals have been given their marching orders at La Trobe University and RMIT. What is regarded as non-essential would not, you would think, include library and staff in the information technology sections, but then again, a library without librarians is the sort of thing that would make sense to the university politburo.  Instead, we have distinctly non-essential publicists and human resources personnel spreading the cheer, with RMIT having come up with that least essential of positions, a Chief People Officer, to facilitate matters.  The line between ghoulish humour and agitprop has been well and truly crossed.

An awful truth has been let out by the recent antics of the NTEU national executive: members were actually paying fees for their betrayal in the university boardroom.  They would not be consulted; the executive would decide what’s best. But instead of rectifying the situation, the NTEU is seeking a membership drive.  Join the union, and get 3 months free membership!  What a lark!

“Elected by Donors”: The University of Cape Town Fails Palestine, Embraces Israel

It was a scandal of the highest caliber. On November 23, the Senate of the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa was practically bullied to reverse an earlier decision that called for the academic boycott of Israel. While the story may seem relevant in South Africa’s political and academic contexts, in reality, it exemplifies the nature of a brewing war between supporters of Palestinian rights and Israeli interests, worldwide.

In fact, the UCT scandal began much earlier.

Calls for South African universities to join the academic boycott of apartheid Israel were first answered by the University of Johannesburg on September 29, 2010. Decisive action taken by the Faculty Senate at the university sent a clear message to Israel’s academic institutions that South African academics would no longer accommodate Israeli crimes, including the crime of apartheid, in the name of scientific cooperation or “academic freedom”.

The severing of ties between the University of Johannesburg and Israel’s Ben Gurion University sounded the alarm among Israel’s supporters in South Africa, under the leadership of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), which fanned out throughout the country warning of the supposed rise of anti-Semitism.

However, the successful campaign in Johannesburg inspired other student groups across the country to carry on with their mission of holding the Israeli state accountable for its racism, apartheid and military occupation. In August 2012, the Student Representative Council at the University of Witwatersrand adopted a resolution that called for a full academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

Support for Palestine continued. In response to the deadly Israeli war on Gaza in the summer of 2014, more than 300 members of Rhodes University in Grahamstown, including the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Sizwe Maisel, condemned Israeli violence targeting the besieged Strip.

In August 2014, the University of Cape Town’s Student Representative Council (UCT SRC) began its campaign aimed at cutting ties between UCT and Israel in response to a memorandum introduced by the Palestine Solidarity Forum (PSF). The students had courageously and “unconditionally” declared Israel an apartheid state, calling for the boycott of Israeli products, and demanding the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador to the country.

UCT students have so much to be proud of, as their efforts, combined with a massive grassroots movement throughout South Africa, did, in fact, push the government to rethink its ties with Israel. In May 2018, Pretoria recalled its ambassador to Israel to protest the Israeli army killing of unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza.

The UCT student efforts began paying dividends on March 15, 2019, when the University Senate passed a resolution that called on the university not to engage with any Israeli academic institutions, whether those operating within the occupied Palestinian territories or any others that contribute to Israel’s gross human rights violations in Palestine.

Considering the importance of UCT as Africa’s top academic institution, and the democratic nature of its Senate, which includes 363 representatives, the pro-Palestine resolution was too much for Israel’s supporters to bear.

On March 19, the SAJBD and the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) called on the UCT’S Council to reject the resolution. At the time, an influential SAJBD member told the right-wing Israeli newspaper, the Jerusalem Post, that the Senate had “shamefully caved in to pressure from radical anti-Israel lobby groups”.

Wary of outside pressures, yet careful not to lose all credibility within the Senate, the 30-member UCT’s Council, which includes representatives who have been “elected by donors”, attempted to exert pressure at the Senate without rejecting the resolution outright.  On March 30, the Council sent the resolution back to the Senate to “reconsider”.

Since then, a battle of wills ensued, involving, on the one hand, student groups and their supporters in the Senate and, on the other, the Council and the many pressure groups, leading among them SAJBD and SAZF.

Weighing in on the matter, 65 distinguished Jewish scholars signed a letter addressed to UCT, “to preserve (its previous) resolution and safeguard the University’s academic freedom and autonomy.”

The March resolution, the letter argued, “establishes UCT as an adherent to international law and affirms the university as a partner in the struggle for human rights in Israel/Palestine.”

The following passage highlighted the nature of the ugly opposition that the resolution had inspired, which culminated in the unfortunate decision of the Senate in November to strike down its own previous commitment:

“Over the past six months, opponents of this resolution have used backdoor fear-mongering about the withdrawal of private funding to cripple the institution thereby undermining the academic freedom of the UCT Senate members.”

Sadly, even such a candid and passionate call failed to dissuade the Council from pressuring the Senate, which led to the November 23 vote and the reversal of the March resolution.

Israel’s friends in South Africa are now gloating, welcoming the badly needed respite from Israel’s political misfortunes in the country.

While, indeed, the UCT Senate decision is a regrettable setback, it is most likely to invigorate pro-Palestine campaigners in South Africa, so that they may take the academic boycott movement to every academic institution in the country that engages with and validates human rights violators in Israel, Palestine or anywhere else in the world.

I visited South Africa for the third time in September. My speaking tour in that beautiful and ever-inspiring country has taken me to several universities, government and civil society offices, and other intellectual and community forums. Certainly, in all of my travels I have never experienced such harmony between politicians, academics, and civil society activists regarding the rights of the Palestinian people and the insistence on holding Israeli criminals to account.

The boycott of Israel, as championed by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, is hardly on the decline, as the recent decision by the US Brown University committee on corporate responsibility to divest from Israeli companies amply demonstrates.

However, it behooves the University of Cape Town to rethink its priorities and to choose between its commitment to those “elected by donors” and the democratic ideals as championed by post-Apartheid South Africa.

Trading Chihuahua Desert Hardscrabble for Coast Range Wet

The word was the ember and the forest was my life.
― Jimmy Santiago Baca, “Coming into Language,” March 3, 2014

We’re at the Flip ‘n Chicken sharing food, swapping stories about El Paso, and philosophizing about what it means to be an educator in the Early Childhood program at Oregon Coast Community College.

His looks are a cross between Lee Trevino (golfer from El Paso) and my buddy the muralist from El Paso, Mario Colin.

My hope is that I can influence high school students to become teachers . . . to be better teachers . . . go to grad school . . . get a master’s degree, get a doctoral. My biggest pleasure would be to see that student who obtained a certificate from Oregon Coast College come back to replace me. — Oscar Juarez, faculty member in early childhood education at Oregon Coast Community College.

As the day unfolds, Oscar leads me from his faculty office to the Flip ‘n Chicken to meet Marco and Ana, the proprietors of the small eatery. For Marco and Oscar, this modest Mexican-styled restaurant serving chicken wings and all-day breakfasts is a hub of activity for the Newport and beyond Latino community.

The journey here for his wife Teresa and five children, aged 22 to 11, is a cultural/intellectual/ spiritual roadmap he’s plotted for his entire life. Leaving a huge metropolitan area with more than 90 percent Hispanic population in El Paso and several million Mexicans right across the border in Juarez, to this almost alien quasi-barren place called the Central Oregon Coast has galvanized into him the word “significant.”

Come November 28 2019, it will be a year since he was hired at OCCC-Newport.

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Oscar Juarez  at Oregon Coast Community College in Newport. (Courtesy photo)

Journeys from Mexico to El Paso – Family Legacy

The legacy of his Mexican roots planted in this country – historically in large part the sanctum of Mexico (or New Spain) for hundreds of years — are still tended carefully.

His parents met in Ciudad Juarez. Jesus Juarez was from Guanajuato and Oscar’s mother Maria Guadalupe from Zacatecas. His mother had a third-grade education, and his father went to college and obtained a business degree while living in Mexico City. Both did not speak English when they arrived to Juarez, Chihuahua.

Soon, a carpet tienda opened up – Alfombras Juarez, both in Juarez and then soon after a sister store in El Paso opened. Oscar and three brothers and sister were born in El Paso. The fifth child, a brother, was born in Juarez as their mother went into labor which necessitated giving birth in Mexico.

For Oscar, their humble beginnings set in motion his own ethos of caring for family and appreciating the little things in life – the gulls, the seals in Waldport where he lives, all the vegetation foreign to a Chihuahua native.

However, it doesn’t take much to precipitate pride in his own country’s history of struggle, and his own belief in the common good of all people, no matter the national borders set down.

Zoot Suits, Gang Bangers, Family Unity

We talk about gangs in El Paso, groups I am familiar with since I was both a college/university instructor who also taught in alternative programs tied to gang activity reduction. Oscar grew up with both parents in the household, and their home was part of two other residences – aunts and uncles with their own broods of 5 and 6 children each.

He attributes that cohesion as to why he, his siblings and cousins never got involved in gangs or drugs.

Where I grew up, one block east was the Barrios San Juan gang. One block west, the Fatherless gang. Two blocks north, the Diablo Sherman gang.

He’s quick to dispel the racist banter about Latinos and gangs.

You can’t judge a book by its cover.Here is one gang, Diablo Sherman, which came from a rundown housing project … they were never given a chance. With both parents working night and day. So, what other outlet do teenagers have? These gangs give them a sense of belonging.

He admits there was pressure to join a gang, but he stifled that by becoming a diplomat, making friends with individuals from every gang.

Given the tight-knit family, the young Oscar had many dreams of what he wanted to be when he grew up. One dream was to become an astronaut. He had aspirations for military life, even wanting to join the Army when the Gulf War began.

Life hit him like ice water to the face several times, the first one being the death of his father when he was killed by a hit and run driver in Juarez when the family was there for a quinceanera.

His mother was 38 years old left alone to raise five boys and a daughter.

Speech Therapy, Learning to Persevere

That’s when my impediment started,” Oscar says. This is one form of trauma precipitated by witnessing his old man die – stuttering, or stammering. “My siblings went to counseling after our father’s death. I was so young I guess they thought I didn’t need to get counseling.

His family was wrong about that. Consequently, his family believed Oscar was faking the stammering, or that he was imitating a cousin who stuttered.

It’s been a blessing for me. It changed my attitude. It made me realize others’ suffering, and to put myself into other people’s shoes.

The “it” is more than a speech challenge/disability – he sees life as a process of challenging any individual to live outside the box.

He was evaluated in fourth grade, received an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), and a speech therapist. For Oscar, during his senior year, the therapist told him his plans for the future – Air Force Academy – were not typical of others with this impediment. “She was telling me how much strength I had by not letting this limit my life, my dreams.”

I took it as a challenge. I never wanted the easy road. It would have been easier to just shy away from public speaking events. I was fortunate I had a few good teachers who made the difference for me.

Teaching is in his Blood

Ironically, it was his family of five children – Clara, 22; Yasmine, 21; Jesus, 18; Oscar, 14; Alicia, 11 – and his wife who chose Newport over a more lucrative offer of an associate professorship (with more pay) at New Mexico State University (his grad school alma mater) in Carlsbad (still close to his large clan in El Paso).

’Let’s get out of our comfort zone,’ Teresa said. ‘We’ve been playing it safe for so long, let’s gamble.’

That gamble means a win-win to the third power for Newport. He says he is really motivated to help transform Oregon Coast College into “the community’s school.”

His multicultural class is helping early childhood instructors see their students’ lives from a broader and multifaceted lens and narrative frame. “I feel I have to be more of an advocate for the college. Being here does provide me with a venue. I want this college to be more inclusive. I tell my students, ‘This is your community college. I am only a steward of the college.’”

He’s all about teaching, even though he was headed for an academy, which didn’t work out. He was a chemistry major at UT-El Paso. He was one semester away from heading to a lab. That didn’t work out.

In fact, Oscar Juarez’s presence in Newport – as he spreads his knowledge, passion and inspiration – is largely because he dropped out of college to take care of an ailing mother. In doing so, he worked odd jobs, including custodian at a Head Start in El Paso. And that’s when the teaching bug hit him hard.

The Benito Juarez Connection

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Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz
Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace.
— Benito Juarez, Zapotec Indian, president of Mexico (1861–72)

This quotation Oscar recites while we eat our veggie burrito and chicken wings. It was the second Mexican revolution, against the French (1864–67) – essentially a foreign occupation under the emperor Maximilian.

That was the Battle of Puebla, which Mexico under Benito Juarez won. Think of Cinco de Mayo (5th of May).

He relates how his father spoke no English but opened up a business in both Juarez and El Paso. In fact, Oscar worked in both carpet stores in the summer. And it was his father who told him that he wanted his son to “not work on his knees but with his head” — no trabajar de rodillas sino con la cabeza.

Persistence is another trait Oscar attributes to his father and to the indigenous hero Benito Juarez. As the last child of six to still be at home, Oscar was asked to undertake caring for his mother.

His mother’ one side of her face was hit with Bell’s Palsy, then the other side was also paralyzed, on top of bouts of painful arthritis. He ended up dropping out of college to work odd jobs to support them both.

Those jobs and supporting his mother led her to ask him if it was okay if she married another man.  Oscar speaks fondly of both his mother and step-father, who miss them dearly now that the five grandchildren and daughter-in-law are so far away.

Starting a Family Young

He was working odd jobs when he answered the request to be a volunteer at his daughter’s Head Start. He then got the job as custodian. Then one day one of the teachers asked him to assist with an unruly child. Oscar was a natural mentor. This Head Start mental health provider witnessed Oscar’s calming and instructive response and so asked him to apply to be a teaching assistant.

It was the assistant director of the program who “saw me interacting with my son . . . it wasn’t a classroom setting.” One week later he was offered the job of teacher’s assistant.

That opportunity came with a cut in pay, but Head Start offered him free schooling. Again, baptismal by fire – “The first day on the job the classroom teacher was out on a training and I was left with the classroom all day. I didn’t know the children’s names or the lesson plans.”

He did the TA job for two years, and then he ended up getting two AA degrees, and finally, after one and a half years of on-line school, he finished his bilingual early childhood education bachelor’s degree (2013).

He then found the time and opportunity to go to graduate school in 2016. Back to UTEP, in their grad program in education and curriculum development. He worked at Head Start full=time as a teacher.

Barrage of Applications

He tells me with a smile that in December 2017 he started sending out applications for full-time college gigs in early childhood education. Over 100 were sent out all over the country. One landed an on-site interview, Grays Harbor College.

On his way back to El Paso, he got the call he didn’t land the Washington job. He emphasizes most colleges and universities were looking for PhD applicants.

He was exhausted, and he got one call from NMSU. He then was asked by OCCC for a remote interview. He did so well they invited him out to Newport for a face-to-face interview. He and his eldest daughter drove to Newport, met his (future) boss, teachers and others. He believes a training video Head Start had made of Oscar teaching in the classroom (age 3 to 5) won them over.

In the video Oscar shows how he can easily impart concepts of math and physics to 3-to 5-year old’s, ideas much older students have a difficult time grasping. He attributes his math and chemistry background to that success.

His trip back – he emphasizes how his family was strapped for money – included a blowout in Kingman, Arizona. Luckily, the spare tire was good. He got home on a Wednesday, got an offer from NMSU-Carlsbad, but then he wondered: “I saw the need of this community were high. I also would be in charge of starting the program – bilingual early childhood education. I wanted to leave my fingerprint on a program.”

Challenges and Changes

He tells me about how his Waldport neighbor Rick, two houses down from the duplex the Juarez family is renting, wrote a little piece for the local paper inspired by Oscar, emphasizing how local residents can take many things for granted.

What do I like about the coast? The weather. The scenery, and the green. I like the small things that people might not see. When driving to and from work, I get to see this amazing area. Even the dandelions. I look at them on the ground and I am truly amazed.

Those conversations with Rick from Waldport made Rick realize how much coastal beauty he takes for granted.

This brings up the fact Oscar Juarez and his family’s presence here – as well as all the other new residents from all parts of Mexico and Central America – could be transformative for dyed in the wool locals who are skeptical of outsiders, especially from countries south of the US border.

In fact, the Chicano-Latino connections Anglo residents are making and continue to make could be yet another story in the legacy of this country’s philosophy of being a welcoming country for immigrants. In 2011 the Mayor of Newport signed a Proclamation stating the city is a Welcoming Community – part of a large initiative called, Welcoming America movement, which has spread to more than two dozen states to promote immigrant inclusion, respect and integration.

The reasons I came to Newport and the Oregon Coast College involve my philosophy of making change where it really counts, Oscar tells me.

He sees the need for early childhood educators to be much more attuned to the shifting demographics of America – no matter how insane and inaccurate the current POTUS and his rabid followers are when discussing immigrants in this country.

Increasing the numbers of bilingual teachers across America is a win-win situation, and Oscar is of a generation of adults who was raised to fight for social justice and human dignity. We talk about his Catholic upbringing and beliefs, and we quickly launch into liberation theology, which is centered in activism by nuns and priests supporting indigenous, poor, farming and working communities throughout Latin America in their struggle to break the chains of oppression, structural violence and austerity measures dictated by transnational financial organizations.

We talk about how Lincoln County’s young minds need to be exposed to the big ideas, the big social justice tools, and how to create a more diverse and respectful world.

Advocate for the Young People

I’m at Oscar’s multicultural and early childhood ed classes at OCCC to give my own presentation on an anti-poverty program I am helping direct in Lincoln County.

The young people obviously open up their minds and hearts to the big ideas I am presenting around social IQ, social capital and communitarianism. The principles Oscar brings to the classroom align with my work for Family Independence Initiative: allowing people or families to make decisions in their lives about what progress should look like.

Investing in families is key to raising smart, resilient and resourceful youth. Having early education students understand the overlay of how young kids end up struggling with reading and writing and their behavior is a must for the new crop of teachers of the 3 to 5 year olds.

Oscar has invited many professionals to his class to talk to his students. I was there when Sommer McLeish, Community Health Improvement Program Coordinator for Samaritan Hospital, gave a presentation on early childhood principles and parenting programs. She too is all about building communities within communities.

Sommer brings up ACES — Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which looks at the variables in a child whose upbringing is rough. The more precarious the parenting, the higher the child’s risks are for later health problems. Abuse, Neglect and Household Dysfunction are just three ACES. Both Oscar and Sommer are looking at arming parents with the tools to make sure the household is one of enrichment, lowered chances of abuse and neglect, and where the children can thrive and get a head start in education.

As I leave his two classes, Oscar runs into a few students – Spanish speaking young men and women who are animated and confident around him.

That is a picture worth more than a thousand words. As more people in our county come to understand the power of the journeys people are making today – sacrifices to leave behind their homelands, communities, families – to live and work here, the more powerful the story of diversity is when traditions and cultural signposts and activities are then shared among all in our community.

A few days earlier, Marco of Flip ‘n’ Chicken showed me the Oceanlake Elementary School Day of the Dead celebration his wife and others in the community put on. Here I was, in this little restaurant, while the Mexican showed me on his android phone the costumes and the dancing and drumming and guitar playing.

Oscar nodded, affirming his role in this county will have a lasting impact for some of those offspring of the Latino and all the other ethnic communities when they take his early childhood education courses to become mentors and guides in the classroom for the next and the next generation of children.

Riffing with the El Pasoan in Ten Easy Questions

My alma mater NMSU called me with the same type of position at almost the exact same time as I heard from Oregon Coast Community College. I felt this was a community that needed me more, and now that I’ve been here for a bit, I feel I made the right choice. I have a lot of experience working with low-income families, and as a Hispanic person, I’ve heard from people that said they were excited to see someone with their skin color that can speak their language, and others saying that seeing me in this job gives them hope.

Paul Haeder: What defines you as a teacher?
Oscar Juarez: I have to give all my best every day. I know being a teacher is my vocation and I enjoy what I do. Another key thing to define me has a teacher is the ability to take a complex problem and break down to its basic element and teach it to my students. I must also have compassion with my students.

PH: What defines you as a father?
OJ: This is somewhat a difficult way to describe. I was fortunate that we had a nuclear family at home with my dad providing the example, but when he passed away my eldest brother took his role. Imagine a 20-year-old being the main male figure in our household but he tried his best and carried a great burden on his shoulders. My wife Terry is the person who has made me a better father. She reminds me when I am wrong and what I did right. Seeing the births of all my children brought me a new sense of security. I will be the first to admit that being a father is difficult and we don’t provide a support system. I always hoped that being a good father made me a better man, and being a good man made me a better father.

PH: What is the best definition of a good teacher?
OJ: A good teacher is a person who has embraced their vocation. Like I explain to my students, teaching is a vocation, meaning you enjoy every single moment and wake up energized each day. As a teacher we make many sacrifices for our families and children. I must emphasize when I mention children, they were my students. I say this because at times I was a stable figure, role model, and sometimes a parent to them after spending 9 months together. A teacher will use their own resources to help provide students the opportunity of giving them a toy or so forth to those who may not have what we all have. There were times, and still currently, financial hardships teachers face but we put a brave face.

PH: What is the main difference being a Latino in Lincoln County vs your life in El Paso?
OJ: The biggest difference is the change in demographics. In El Paso Latinos are the majority group in the city, and in Lincoln County we are the minority group. The food, produce, and language are very distinct from back home. We have found it very difficult to find food and produce that make up our diet. Mexican produce is very limited and expensive here. Another major difference is not being able to speak Spanish with other people. Being bilingual is great, but I still feel the urge to speak my native tongue or even joke around with friends and coworkers.

PH: What are some of the key issues in your multicultural class students might struggle with?
OJ: One of the biggest issues my students are facing is the financial struggle. Poverty has no racial line. Another issue is understanding the views and pressures other cultures have and understanding the similarities of each group. Finally, speaking about the elephant in room, white privilege.

PH: You have seen in your lifetime a real spotlight on Americans’ supremacist history, no? How do you have that conversation with your 5 children about how they might be greeted by cops, officials and even just the public based on the color of their skin?
OJ: Yes, I have seen the American supremacist history in action. Growing up in a majority Latino community, I was still called “wetback” and “illegal.” The attitudes by white Anglo people were very disheartening. Being subjected to injustices and discrimination in school, work, and in society would hamper my ideal of equality, but I became resolute in what needs to be done. When I drove to Newport the first time around, I noticed the same discrimination in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho. We have been able to avoid some of the discrimination towards our children. We have taught them we all are equal and have the same value in society, but society has not kept up to the times. I still get the look when I’m driving and notice a police car following me. Or even walking into a store and I hear the “keep an eye code” over the intercom. Yes, I did work in retail, do understand the codes to be vigilant with certain customers. On several occasions, I had sheriff’s deputy officer and Customs and Border agent berate me due to the color of my skin. All of these experiences have only made me more of an advocate for social justice.

PH: What are the key changes need to be made in the entire early education framework?
OJ: The changes I would love to make are “to learn through play,” community involvement, local curriculum needs, and better training of teachers. Learn through play is the easiest change we need in order to allow teachers the freedom to have fun with children. We are teaching children as if we are factory workers. Federal and state mandates have pushed out the ability to have fun. My fondest memories when I taught was when my students and I had fun learning. Allowing them to use their natural curiosity to investigate and develop the correlation of a solution while having fun. I often ask people what is your fondest memory of school. Almost 99% will say when they had fun in a class. The community input is very important in the classroom and outside the classroom. But we have built a wall around schools. Parental involvement is vital to the success of their children. We need them to volunteer in the classroom, we need them feel invested in their child’s learning. They are the experts on their children, not us. When we create an inclusive environment with the community, they will help us identify curriculum needs for their children. If we have a multicultural community, we need to hear and understand their needs. This will go along with using their cultural strengths in school. Lastly, we need to encourage teachers to step out of their comfort zone. We need to bring teachers to use their talents into the classroom by changing how we train teachers. Teacher training usually involves sitting down and listening to a speaker. This is sometimes boring. We need to create training that will foster their skills with hands on activities, learn through play.

PH: What is your favorite thing to do in Lincoln County, on the Coast?
OH: My favorite thing to do in the county is walking on the beach with my family. We are trying to go out every weekend to Seal Rock or Waldport beach and enjoy being together as a family. My wife and I enjoy watching our kids running or enjoying themselves in the natural beauty of the beach. This is a major contrast to our former Chihuahua desert view.

PH: Define community for me.
OJ: A community is helping your family, friends, and neighbors. The mutual cooperation to help each other in a time of need. When I used to be at catechism for confirmation, I had my candidates share the Christmas joy by buying presents to under privileged children in the community. Understanding the hardships and how we could help make the difference in people lives.

PH: Why would you make a good governor of Texas, or Oregon?
OJ: First all is the understanding the daily struggles everyone has. I do not come from a family of wealth or a generation of privilege. In Texas the challenges include affordable housing, Medicaid expansion, education funding, and safety net plans. I know how it feels to live in poverty and the challenges to make ends meet. We have programs that are meant to help families from low socio-economic status with food, housing, and so forth. But when a family is trying to overcome their challenges, the programs that are meant to help instead push families away. For example, if a family is making more money, their SNAP benefits are reduced. We create more obstacles for those families. In education, the funding would go to the Education Agency, in Texas it’s the TEA. They would give the monies according to each district; now the problem here is that more affluent districts would get a greater chunk of the monies and poor districts would get the least.

I wrote some of my graduate work on the importance of changing the formulas to better match the needs of the community by providing more funds to school with high rates of reduced or free lunches. Another issue tied to this is providing more funding to rural communities. I believe that every family that makes $70,000 or less should receive SNAP. Families are struggling to make ends meet, and food takes a big chunk from family budgets. Giving them more for their food will allow them to build up wealth and not live paycheck to paycheck. I believe families should free high-speed internet. We need to build new infrastructure that benefit both rural and urban communities. The one program I would implement is affordable housing. I would take land and old buildings and create new homes. The use of eminent domain in certain areas is necessary to help reduce families living in poverty or homeless. For example, I would take 10 acres of land and build 4 houses on every 1 acre. I would state that companies bidding for contracts must pay a living wage, be local, hire locally, and purchase from local vendors. We would offer homes to low income families and allow them to borrow $20,000 for the closing costs and down payment. The caveat to this would be families would need to live 10 years there and be forgiven the first $10,000; if a family lives in the house for 20 years, the other $10,000 would be forgiven. We would continue to do this for several years. By providing affordable housing, rent prices shall fall. Imagine if we could build homes in rural communities that need the most? It may sound odd, but we would be building new infrastructure in rural and urban areas. And yes, this includes creating partnerships with local native tribes to be included in the infrastructure. Our fellow communities should share the same benefits as everyone in our society. Imagine if we could build homes in rural communities that are in dire need the most? This is why I think I would be a great asset as governor. Hopefully, one day I shall take that bold step.

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Oscar Juarez leads an Early Childhood Education course at Oregon Coast Community College in Newport. (Courtesy photo)

From Colombia to Galapagos to California and OSU

New information breakthroughs for me are exhilarating. Working with all that whale data is like looking into the dark with a flashlight. It’s work that is able to contribute new information to the field.

— OSU Whale Researcher, Daniel Palacios

Whaling’s first commercial iteration with harpoons started in Japan around 1570. With many more nations participating in killing whales for exploitation over the proceeding centuries – seeking oil, blubber, flesh, and other body parts – by the turn of the 20th Century, many of the 90 species of whales were on a steep decline, endangered or near extinction.

For one Oregon State University research faculty member of the Marine Mammal Institute, the cetacean is his passion, his life. Daniel Palacios was intellectually and spiritually connected to cetaceans after seeing the iconic humpback whale banners and picket signs deployed on Earth Day, while watching religiously the series, The Under Sea World of Jacques Cousteau, and through regaling in his own country’s mythological Amazon biosphere.

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Two-parts passion, one-part inspiration, and three-parts intellectual drive propelled him to where he is today – researching the pathways, habitats and health of earth’s largest animals.

The harpoon this 50-year-old scientist throws is outfitted with both a satellite tracking tag and small biopsy plug extractor to harvest not whale meat, but rather to collect valuable data on what whales do, what they eat, where they go, and for future research concerns, how well their overall physical health is.

Palacio’s been working with teams collecting the information on sperm, humpback, gray, blue and other whale species to determine their range and pelagic journeys throughout the Pacific coastal upwelling, all the way down to the Gulf of California.

“One of my drivers is discovery and knowledge, what you could say is strict hardcore science . . . pure analytical and statistically important science,” he tells me while we share coffee at a café in the Wilder community near OCCC.

Early Dreams Bring a Boy from South America to the Central Oregon Coast

His love and interest in science started young – five or six years of age while growing up in landlocked Bogotá. His parents (an engineer father and lawyer mother) bought him encyclopedias and books on animals. “I was continuously reading about African animals. I was mesmerized.”

He stresses living in an urban and cosmopolitan capital city was like being worlds away from his own country’s swath of Amazon rainforest.

The Amazon jungle would have been like Africa to me growing up in a big city. Our world was so disconnected from the natural world. We had no sense of the ocean or the Amazon.

Some 45 years later — traversing his early curiosity attending a Catholic school in a city of 7 million, to now, with all those titles and associations from OSU (“PhD/ Endowed Associate Professor in Whale Habitats/ Whale Telemetry Group/ Marine Mammal Institute and Dept. of Fisheries & Wildlife”) — Palacios has kept his eye on the proverbial prize of being a marine scientist.

He states his parents sacrificed to put him and his two sisters into the best schools they could afford. His grandparents came from humble beginnings in rural Colombia not far from Bogotá. He reminisces about this K-12 experience where he was taught math, physics, and liberation theology – a philosophy that measures helping the poor and understanding the plight of the underprivileged tied to capitalism’s great class divide as part of religious enlightenment.

This Calasanz school from the Escolapios Order bore the name of the Spanish founder who went to Rome in the 1500s to teach the very privileged, and on his daily crossing back over the Tiber River after teaching these rich youth, saw the poverty and disadvantaged circumstance of the masses.

In Bogotá, they would send us to a sister school for the poor and we’d help teach the kids. Even though it was a religious school, going to college my first two years was a walk in the park. We were really well prepared by the priests.

Meeting of the Whale Minds

Currently, Daniel spends most of his time analyzing all the data from satellite tags and biopsies. He likes the vigorous, meticulous nature of this work, even though 90 percent of his time is not working with whales directly in their habitat.

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I first met Daniel at the American Cetacean Society monthly meeting in Newport. It was his 15 minutes of fame with his Power Point in front of a packed room at the public library. “This is actually the second time I have presented to the ACS. Something like 17 years ago, in Monterey.”

Monterrey was his home for more than a decade, and his boss was NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) as he was tasked to answer why these humpbacks are in abundance in this upwelling ecosystem of Northern California, and to determine their migratory patterns and territorial range.

My dream was to work with these people studying this classic upwelling ecosystem.

As he shows slides and wonderful images of humpbacks to us naturalists who are interested in science, yes, and informed but not steeped in hard science, he states he understands the allure of the charismatic whale.

“All these people who have a strong affinity to whales are genuinely interested in their plight which makes funding the OSU foundation and Endowment easier.” It turns out one of Palacios’ mentors, OSU’s Bruce Mate, was a forerunner in getting the general public to support their work. That donor base serves as a buffer facilitating Palacios and others to continue their work collecting and analyzing so much data from satellite tags.

He later tells me that while he has authored all these professional journal articles (75) in periodicals such as Marine Mammal Science (through the Society of Marine Mammalogy), he realizes few read these rarefied articles; whereas, the real passion and interest in his field rests with whale watchers, naturalists, eco-tourists and writers.

Palacios counts his lucky stars and serendipity in his life: “I am at a place beyond my wildest dreams. I’ve received so much support, and where I’ve gotten to is due to the generosity of many people.”

If we pollute the air, water and soil that keep us alive and well, and destroy the biodiversity that allows natural systems to function, no amount of money will save us.

-– David Suzuki, Canadian scientist and documentary producer

The price of ecosystems and individual species is difficult to access, and for most ecologists, no amount of monetary exchange can replace, say, a Military Macaw parrot or whale shark. However, we ecologists do call a forest or wetlands an “ecosystem” that provides invaluable services to the entire life web, to include humans.

A healthy coastal ecosystem with vibrant forests, clear streams and non-diked wetlands provide humans billions of dollars of “free life-giving/saving services” – clean air and water, healthy soils, pure estuaries, unmolested bays, erosion prevention.

There’s even a formula of sorts to put a price to a whale.

“Anyone know how much a whale is worth?” Palacios asks the ACS crowd tongue-in-cheek. There are a few bids from the crowd of a few thousand here, eighty thousand there for the going rate of a humpback whale.

According to the IMF (International Monetary Fund) one whale’s biological value is two million dollars over its lifetime.

Daniel rattles off the capitalist values – “Considering the whale watching and tourism industry and the fact they are the biggest animals on earth they are amazing at combating climate change.” They consume carbon in the form of plankton and krill. Once their feces fall to the bottom of the ocean, it’s sequestered carbon that doesn’t make it into the atmosphere. When the whale dies, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Each is thousands and thousands of pounds, and both the whale poop and decaying bodies serve as nutrients for plankton and other myriad of marine life.

The Odyssey

During Daniel’s final year of college in Cartagena, he was hunting for a doctoral program in the USA – such as Scripps or Wood Hole. His life at a young age is a tale of serendipity.

He ended up in Panama, waiting for the Odyssey — a 93-foot scientific sailboat loaded with research equipment ready for heavy-hitters from around the world heading to the Galapagos. Daniel wanted to board that ship as a scientist-in-training. Big names in whale research like Roger Payne were scheduled to board the vessel.

They laughed when I asked if I could go with them to the Galapagos. ‘You just show up and expect us to take you with us?’ That’s what they told me.

However, after Odyssey’s trip from Key West to Panama, it was moored in a slip in order to receive parts and repairs. The young graduate was enlisted to help chip paint from the hull.

I had never been on a sailboat before, and this was an operation on an entirely different scale. I worked on the boat with the scientists-slash-crew for two weeks, and it was the day they were leaving when they told me I could come with them.

Their caveat was the science team would drop Daniel off in the Galapagos and he’d have to find his own way home.

This was a diverse crew, and while they motored to the Galapagos, they conducted oceanographic research.

They embraced me, and indicated I was a good crew member. But I had a secret weapon: I spoke Spanish.

The Odyssey was stopped and boarded by the Colombian Navy since they were sailing along known drug-smuggling routes. When the ship arrived at the islands, it turned out they had to obtain many permits to work in a highly-regulated marine reserve.

Every day the scientist-slash-interpreter “kid from Colombia” met with the officials in the National Parks office and Ecuadoran Navy to get the paperwork in order.

After a month delay, the Odyssey was on its way studying the sperm whales in this incredible ecosystem as well as tackling other oceanic matters. Daniel now was part of the crew; many of the premier scientists who had been scheduled to be on the Odyssey had to delay their scientific journeys.

Daniel learned how to construct a harpoon-staging platform as well as integrate hydrophone technology so the team could track sperm whales vis-a-vis their calls.

It was a 24/7 operation. Amazing minds, amazing ecosystems, and a real journeyman scientist’s apprenticeship propelled Palacios to seek more and more scientific pursuits.

It’s a Small-Small World in Marine Mammal Research Circles

That Odyssey adventure also parlayed into a job in Massachusetts with the non-profit Whale Conservation Institute. That was his first foray into the United States. He credits his mobility and lack of family responsibilities to his flexibility to move where the research was.

He did work in the mid-1990s with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla. That was part of a huge NOAA project on eastern Pacific dolphin recovery.

Scripps is the Harvard of marine sciences, with Woods Hole and Texas A & M a close second and third as the best rated schools in ocean studies. However, Daniel said he did not come from a well-off family, and Scripps expected all PhD students to have their own scholarships/grants and per diem sources to attend.

That Odyssey trip again paid off. Bruce Mate was the lead scientist Daniel worked with on sperm whale tagging, and he then contacted the Colombian to see if he wanted to get into OSU’s marine mammal program, ranked in the top five in the US.

The experience at OSU I believe was better for me than if I had gotten accepted to Scripps.

Leave it to magic of the Odyssey to continue on in another scientific expedition – five years around the world with a number of international scientists participating in some deep research. Daniel says that many of the leading marine mammal people had once been an Odyssey fellow or crew-slash-scientist.

Ironically, an Australian couple, Chris and Gen, were crew members and communications experts – writing stories and producing blogs and interview pieces. He said they have considered writing a book on the Odyssey’s odyssey.

I’m still meeting people in my field who had been on the Odyssey in some part of the world.

Diversity of Ecosystems, Diversity of Scientists

That PhD in oceanography came from OSU, but in 2003 he was called back to research whales at NOAA studying their presence in the upwelling ecosystem of North California. That was a 12-year sojourn.

Again, in 2013 Bruce Mate lured Daniel Palacios, PhD, back to OSU with a research professorship. The work involves advancing research in whale tracking and data analysis.

The grant he works under is through the auspices of the US Navy, which is conducting more training and development activities in whale territory. Federal legislation puts restrictions on some of the activities in accordance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

As is the case in a Capitalistic society, there are many exceptions to “do no harm scientific principles,” when so-called national security issues are put ahead of everything else. “Biological acceptable limits” and monitoring are what guide the Navy’s contract with OSU and other colleges concerning whales being affected by military activities.

Sounds, bombs, boat and ship traffic, radar, and more do play roles in altering whale behavior, physiology and general habitat conditions.

Diverse ecosystems, diverse species in and diverse intrusions on their natural world are both intriguing and challenging to confront. On the personal front, Daniel and I delve into his own perplexing identities while growing up a male in machismo Colombia.

“I knew as a small child I was different,” he said, emphasizing that he was feeling like he was attracted to males around age five or so. He comes from a culture where being gay is the worst thing a man could be, bringing “huge shame and guilt to a gay.”

As is the case in many histories of homosexuals confronting that bigotry and bias against being queer, gays end up marrying as heterosexuals, even raising families with female wives. Daniel did meet a woman at OSU when he was a student, and she became his wife. Almost six years into the marriage, he came out to her.

She was (and still is) supportive, but she insisted on a divorce. That was 2004 when he came out, and the guilt of having ruined the life of someone he loved and all the other issues associated with living a closeted life required “a lot of therapy.”

Even though his parents are conservative and traditional, they’ve been very supportive, he says.

He expressed to me on several occasions how we all are evolving creatures, and that decision to live his life as a gay man means he can be authentic.

With that, we talked about the fact there were no role models in his field for gay scientists. In the lead up to a 2015 conference of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, he broached the idea of having a social mixer on the agenda for LGBTQA scientists.

I told one of the scientists who happened to be lesbian that the Society doesn’t provide any notion of being accepting of homosexuals in their field.

The networking mixer for queers was announced, and there were over 100 people who attended it – LGBTQA and allies.

When an aspiring marine mammal scientist doesn’t see people like him in the field, it’s hard to be fully realized, he states.

There is a deep spiritual need to see people like myself in my profession. My sexuality has zero relevance to the science I am conducting; nevertheless, how I identify myself definitely defines who I am. Those walls we build around ourselves when we are gay – the struggle and insight, too – when they begin to fall, there is a feeling of liberation, and becoming fully realized as a person.

We decided to do a bit of a question and answer interview to end this story of a Colombian whale expert who is now a US citizen working on protecting the enigmatic humpback (known as the songster whale) in our little corner of the world – Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Whale photo provided by Craig Hayslip

Interview

Paul Haeder: If you had to put down your philosophy of life in a sentence or two, what would it be?

Daniel Palacios:  As far as I approach things, I’m drawn toward excellence and beauty in nature. I find satisfaction in giving my best and in what I learn through the process of creating and discovering, especially if it fulfills my curiosity toward the natural world.

PH:  Science and the arts can’t be separated. I can give you a piece, “A Faustian Bargain,” by Gregory Petsko —  The quote is below, and the highlight is what I want you to riff with, sir!

‘Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future.’

DP: I wholeheartedly agree that science is best when considered in the context of the humanity that produced it, and the increasing capacity and demand by the general public to absorb science is evidence of that. I also agree that those universities that embrace this notion will play an important role in the future, but at the same time I’m concerned that there’s relatively few universities that are equipped for this, and also that those that are may not reach outside their walls unless they make very concerted efforts, such that these gains would mostly benefit a few people.

PH: What do you believe the biggest challenges in whale ecology and whale survivability will be in the next two decades, and explain.

DP: With the exception of a few whale species that remain critically endangered, most whale populations have been slowly recovering since commercial hunting stopped in 1986. Today the biggest challenges to whale conservation are largely the same ones that affect marine ecosystems as a whole: chemical and noise pollution, shipping, habitat degradation, and over-harvesting of marine resources for human consumption. These are much more pervasive and complex problems, and addressing them requires the engagement and participation of all segments of society.

PH: How can your work, and Bruce Mate’s and others’ help “manage” the multiple jurisdictions with so many competing Exclusive Economic Zones and national agencies and economic drivers in the mix?

DP: Whale migrations truly exemplify the requirements of marine fauna for vast expanses of habitat, often covering an entire ocean basin. Although some countries have made good progress in protecting these species in their national waters, once they cross into another jurisdiction or into international waters those protections no longer apply. Therefore, there’s a need for developing policy at the highest levels to achieve adequate conservation across jurisdictions. These policies are best developed through regional, international, and intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations’ Convention on Migratory Species, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or the International Whaling Commission, among others. There are several such initiatives currently underway — one example being the ‘Migratory Connectivity of the Ocean’ project, and we are engaged with them by providing tracking data and results for informing these processes.

PH: Give me the typical funder and donor elevator speech on the value and importance of funding marine mammal research, specifically, on whales.

DP: We start from the basis that, owing to their majestic beauty, whales have always captured the human imagination like few other species. But for us scientists, whales have a number of unique biological adaptations and behaviors that we’re just starting to understand. Through the use of cutting-edge technology we’re making fascinating scientific discoveries about them, which benefit all of humanity. And this information often contributes to efforts to improve their protection as well. For example, using satellite tracking we can follow them on their long migrations and determine where they go, how they get there, and what risks they may encounter along the way. Management agencies require this information in order to assess the status of the species and to enact spatially explicit conservation measures.

PH: What advice would you give a young aspiring marine scientist, say, from Colombia or another Latin American country with even fewer options in their respective countries to pursue the work you are now doing? What do you recommend their pathway, both intellectually and practically, be?

DP: Believe in your dreams, keep an open mind, and have a steely determination and things will start turning around — not always exactly in the way you envisioned, but opportunities will present themselves. These days access to knowledge is no longer a limitation thanks to the internet, but dedicated academic study and networking are still critical requirements to succeed and become an established scientist. Joining and being active in a professional society is helpful, especially for making connections with colleagues as well as for benefiting from mentoring and other programs intended for young scientists as well as those from developing nations.

Image result for Daniel Palacios OSU"

A Touch of Plagiarism: The Nazari Precedent

The academy is filled with wonder.  There are professors who cannot teach.  There are associate professors who cannot write.  There are tenured academics who have been promoted on the basis of being able to be the fourth author on all their papers, able to put and patch together an abstract and jot down a signature.  And there are those tagging types, the sort that come to the intellectual show once it has been played, attaching their names to a monograph they have never written.  All make sure about one thing: to spell their name correctly and hail the merits of the work.

Amidst this jumble of derivative junk are those who take things just that bit far. They lift papers wholesale.  They market data and results with astonishing confidence.  They also run the same paper, if only slightly adjusted, in multiple fora.  This is confidence tricksterism at its highest, a defiant scoff at convention.  But in some ways, it is also a celebration of it, a push-the-envelope mentality that is invariably given that sense of complicity.  These are offences that take place in plain sight and are questioned even less for that fact.  (The academic mind resists the obvious, preferring the vague to that of the profound.)

Such was the case with an academic at Melbourne’s Swinburne University.  Dr. Ali Nazari of the university’s School of Engineering faced a true flood of retractions by scientific journals during the course of the year.  In 2017, Nazari was feted by Swinburne University Vice-Chancellor Linda Kristjanson.  He had been a golden boy, commended for research excellence and heaving under the weight of a million dollars in research funding from the Australian Research Council.  Both the Vice-Chancellor, and the ARC, have played their not-so-small parts in this tawdry episode.

But most damnably of all are the journals themselves, whose editors were evidently asleep at the wheel when it came to the peer review process.  The academic journal publisher SAGE took the somewhat dramatic step of issuing a retraction notice for 22 articles published in the International Journal of Damage Mechanics and Journal of Composite Materials.  It was found that certain articles contained “significant overlap with previously published articles by at least one of the authors listed”.  Another retraction notice claimed that Nazari had duplicated his work as many as 70 times.  The number of papers caught up in this may number 188.

As always, an accepted hypocrisy in such cases is perpetrated.  Students are not permitted to get away with it.  Each semester or term is filled with the curt warning, the formal placing in week one in course guides, that plagiarism is the big misdemeanour.  They are not permitted to recycle and run their same papers in other subjects.  (Some, of course, do, and some even get away with it.)  Universities prefer to apply a different a set of big boy and girl standards to those who are rather cavalier with the material (or, as is tediously called in some circles, the data).

Plagiarism is the postmodernist’s celebrated child. It involves doing away with author and ownership, killing both.  Jacques Derrida himself toyed with it (well, wrestled with it), suggesting that a work is never really yours – at least exclusively.  Your corpus is a compound of what has come before, not merely building on shoulders but merging with them.  Jean-François Lyotard dreamt of “a book with no title or authorship”, though admitting to its naïve sense.

Their legacy persists with stubbornness.  “No concept is truly unique,” claim Mike Reddy and Victoria Jones tritely, “and all ideas are created in the context of the society and culture in which they are engendered.  Therefore, there cannot be any true ownership, or indeed theft, of these artefacts as they are an integral part of the environment that learning is taking place within.”  This rather lazy reasoning ignores the point that plagiarism is very much a matter of power, and its misuse.  Far from acknowledging the commonness of ideas that is part of a corpus or a body of knowledge, it suggests a special entitlement to it.  The plagiarist is a poacher, and conceals that fact.

And it happens to the best, the worst, and the most mediocre.  Slavoj Žižek, for an essay in Critical Inquiry, lifted “an extended passage” from a review by Stanley Hornbeck in American Renaissance of Kevin MacDonald’s The Culture of Critique.  That passage, it so happened, had originally found a home in a white supremacist magazine.  The editors were apologetic.  Žižek recalled the ease with which texts can be easily replicated without seeming attribution.  He had been writing the text on Derrida, containing “the problematic passages” when he received word from a friend about Kevin Macdonald’s theories. A brief resume was requested.  “The friend sent it to me, assuring me that I can use it freely since it merely resumes another’s line of thought.”  Blame the friend: sloppiness came on that side of it, and Žižek, rather than apologising for himself, was doing so for the one who put him in the fix.  Perhaps the Slovenian thinker should have stuck to plagiarising himself.

In the sciences, the issue might be considered less problematic. The field is populated by thieves, made all the more easier by multi-authorship, laboratories and the problems of the big professorial bully.  This also encourages mass production, and imitation.  Researchers desperate to make a way in their fields also find their name vanquished to lower tiers as they bask in the exaggerated glory of the God Academic. All hail the maximiser of the minimal.

But this is slightly different to the individual who happily duplicates and replicates material that has been done before and runs it persistently even as the cash flows in. They remain the mass production people, those who have discovered that the academy can, at points, be open to the same piece, or the same set of items, reproduced ad infinitum.  This is an ugly form of plagiarism, and Nazari might count himself unlucky that he was found out.

No university has been spared the instances of another Nazari moment, but many refuse to act on this.  It took an academic publisher, the faces of its employees and journal editors egged, to make a move that may have some repercussions.  Knowing the away the academy works, these are bound to few and slow.

So, suggestions to future academic plagiarists seeking to avoid being Nazarified: It is not just slicing the salami that counts, but how you do so.  Be derivative, be banal and unvaried. Dress your work up as the new.  If you stick to those rules, you will be playing an acceptable game.  A brazen replication of material you have done before is permissible but must be undertaken with caution.  At the very least, change the title of your paper.

Reintroducing Otters after a Few Centuries of Harassment

Even in the vast and mysterious reaches of the sea we are brought back to the fundamental truth that nothing lives to itself.

— Rachel Carson1

“I’ve never lived on the West Coast, but I really have absolutely fallen in love with the place.”

Dominique Kone and I are talking at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, covering a lot of ground in the 28-year-old’s narrative, from early years in small towns like Blue Hill and Bucksport, Maine, and then his undergraduate days in the big town (50,000) of Waterville where Kone entered Colby College on a track and field scholarship.

The beauty of going deep on these stories is that readers learn how the NCAA Division III’s fastest athlete in the 100- and 60-meter dashes finds himself in Washington DC working for the PEW Charitable Trust and goes on to set down roots in Corvallis with much time spent completing a master’s in science at the Oregon Coast.

We first meet at an American Cetacean Society gathering where Kone is giving a large audience a thorough and enlightening rundown on his work as a community ecologist studying the possibility of the sea otter finding a home back on Oregon Coast’s waters.

These iconic tool-using mammals, sometimes reaching five feet in length and hitting 100 pounds, have not been a presence on our coastline for decades. Many residents and naturalists might see another member of the weasel family scurrying around the tidewaters and creeks, but those mammals are officially river otters.

Dominque (Dom) Kone’s work is tied to interdisciplinary approaches studying a species like the sea otter (Enhydra lutris).

The Power Point’s title is a typically erudite one associated with grad work: “An Ecological Assessment of a Potential Sea Otter Reintegration to Oregon” under the auspices of the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab.

Communicating Science His Gift

The powerful element to Kone’s presentation is his at-ease presence and articulateness with a crowd that considers itself amateur biologists.

In the parlance of OSU and other institutions, “transdisciplinary” and “interdisciplinary” define what Dom and his two project fellows are doing to make science much more vigorous and relevant across many disciplines.

This sea otter project is part of a grant OSU received from the National Science Foundation, spurring multiple disciplines in higher education to study the risk and uncertainty in marine science. Dom is one fellowship recipient in his team of three – the others are a social scientist and geneticist.

While the reader will get some of the history surrounding sea otters on the Oregon Coast — from Warrenton to Brookings — and then their localized extirpation and subsequent reintroduction and disappearance, two vital questions in the fellows’ research have been posed and require answering:

1. Does Oregon have suitable habitat for reintroducing the sea otter given the overlapping human activities that have developed over time?

2. What are the potential ecological effects of sea otter reintroduction?

Dom makes it clear that those questions are much more complicated and overlaid with other factors related to potential resource competition, such as interactions with human-based fisheries, which target the same food sources otters do. Add to the mix a marine mammal with the sea otter’s history in California, Washington, Canada and Alaska both positively and negatively affecting the ecosystem separate from Homo sapiens’ needs.

Systems Thinking, Holistic Practices

“My adviser is a professor in the fisheries and wildlife department, but I study within the marine resource management program.” That means Dom has a thesis/project adviser and committee members that include two OSU faculty — a marine ecologist and public policy expert — in addition to an Oregon Department of Fisheries and Wildlife (ODFW) shellfish manager and a sea otter ecologist from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The reason inter- and multi-disciplinary approaches are a hot topic, Dom says, is “because a lot of issues facing resource managers involving the environment are really complex to address requiring multiple disciplines to find solutions to all the challenges they face.”

For Dom, who went from four years in the highly diverse and energized DC, to our laid back Corvallis and Coast, he says he has been surprised how gratifying it’s been to be in a place where he can listen to the interests and needs of so many people directly affected by environmental policies and ecological and climatic changes.

He went from a kid who had no robust science classes or ecology clubs in high school in Maine, to this spark plug of a graduate student working on cutting-edge research. Both places, Maine and Oregon, have that one identity issue in common: He was one of three black students in his high school (one was his sister), and he is often the only black student in an OSU classroom.

He touts the added-value of the interdisciplinary project: “I gained skills I wasn’t expecting, like being a good teammate, collaboration and accountability. And I’ve benefited from interacting with people from different disciplines. I’ve increased my communication skills and learned valuable conflict resolution tactics.”

A perfect toolbox for anyone working on endangered species and environmental policies while attempting to integrate the public’s and business stakeholders’ perceptions, needs and demands.

Note: First published at Deep Dive

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In otter news

We talk about conservation biology, ecology, environmental issues and what needs to be done to address many coalescing problems we face on the Central Oregon Coast, in the state and around world in general.

“It’s really important to look at connections and feedbacks,” Dom says as we cover myriad topics. “We need to understand the ecological processes. And scientists can play an important role in listening to stakeholders and their values and concerns. As a scientist and educator, I see my role as educating people on how complex these impacts and variables are in our ecosystem.”

Continually, we talk about the idea that for too long, humans have not considered themselves as part of the natural world. That dominating role has created untold damage to ecosystems that are at the same time both resilient and fragile.

I liken it to arrogance and myopia.

Whether it’s DDT used to kill insects or bringing the American beaver close to extinction, the unintended consequences are apparent to ecologists like Dominique: The American bald eagle almost went extinct due to the DDT causing eggshells to thin and the unhatched chicks to die under the crushing weight of their parents. The eagle’s recovery – largely by banning DDT – is a success story.

For the beaver, much of the East Coast waterways and standing ponds and lakes (wetlands and storm buffers) were created by the beaver, that once numbered 200 million in North America. The fur trade brought them close to absolute extinction. About five percent of the total number of beavers before the fur trade now live in North America (10 million).

Moreover, the fur trade almost brought sea otters to the brink of extinction, Dom states. There were around 150,000 to 300,000 sea otters before heavy hunting, dating from 1741 to 1911, brought the world population to 1,000 to 2,000 individuals living in a fraction of their historic range.

There’s an international ban on hunting them, and from what Dom has studied, we have more than 50 years of managing them through conservation efforts. Dom tells the naturalists with the American Cetacean Society that reintroduction programs into previously populated areas have aided some of the rebounding.

These translocation efforts, from 1965 to ’72, shuttled sea otters form the Central Coast of Alaska to other parts of that state and then British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.

These creatures are enigmatic and iconic. We surmise that the last native sea otter in Oregon was shot and killed in 1906. Those 95 sea otters transplanted from Amchitka Island, Alaska, to the Southern Oregon Coast were our best chance at recovery. Sightings make the scientific journals — in 2004, a male sea otter hung out for six months at Simpson Reef off of Cape Arago. Then, in 2009, another male sea otter was spotted in Depoe Bay. Both otters could have traveled to from either California or Washington

“Within five or six years, the otters mysteriously disappeared,” Dominique states.

He nuances the Alaska population’s vitality by pointing out that maybe three of the stocks are doing well, while the Southwestern Alaskan stock is threatened. Ironically, in 1970, another OSU graduate student, Ron Jameson, monitored the 95 otters while they were here, with sightings along the 276 miles of Oregon coast.

“Very few sea otter carcasses were found on the Oregon coast,” Dom said. “Mortality can’t explain their disappearance.”

Otters Doing What Otters Must Do – Explore!

Other explanations for their exit from our coast could be “otters were doing what otters do – disperse and explore other locations.” The mystery spurs scientists to find answers: Lack of food? Lack of habitat? Human disturbances?

Dom is deft at fielding questions from the crowd of 35, and he explains how conservation biologists consider sea otter recovery an important link in marine conservation. The interrelationship of one species with the total ecological health of other species was first named in 1969 by Robert Paine who looked at the sea otter and other fauna as “keystone species.”

The Central Oregon Coast should think of kelp forests as one key benefit of sea otters making a comeback: These are nurseries for many different aquatic species. Kelp forests give protection to juvenile aquatic animals, who would otherwise be vulnerable targets.

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Here’s the interconnectivity of otters and kelp forests: Sea urchins multiply, forming barrens that sweep the ocean floor consuming entire stands of kelp.

The keystone element to this species Dominique and his cohorts are studying is that since the sea urchin is a main food source for the sea otter, the mammal acts as “protector of the kelp beds.”

We call this “balancing the ecosystem,” so by keeping urchin populations down, the kelp thrives, and the result is other aquatic species are able to mature and live in their natural environment, and sea otters, a threatened species, are able to survive.

The California and Aleutian Island sea otter populations have either declined or plateaued, and therefore the sea otter remains classified as a threatened species.

This otter research project is really a look at how viable a recovery or restoration project is for Oregon — considering all the implications of so-called human resource management.

See the source image

The graduate student is looking into the entire suite of unanticipated outcomes or impacts a sea otter reintroduction program might have on the following individual and intersecting issues: law and policy; ecology; fisheries management; politics, economics; social and cultural stakes; genetics; even oceanographic.

Interestingly, while Dom is working as a scientist pulling together the history, biology, fisheries management and public policy sides to Oregon’s possible sea otter reintroduction, he is quick to point out powerful indigenous groups’ spiritual-centered connection to the sea otter, such as the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians and the Coquille Indian Tribe. “We also are looking at what restoring the cultural connections to the sea otter before tribes were forced from coastal lands will do for those communities.”

This once prevalent species comes with it more than its tool-making and cute coastal presence. We have stakeholders with the urchin, Dungeness crab, mussel and clam fisheries. We have all these other human activities, too, along the coast that might make the recovery effort difficult: pollution, shipping lanes, recreation and toxins.

The linchpin for much of my life interviewing people is what makes them tick and from where they came: family, significant emotional events, perspectives honed by trials and tribulations.

Diversity Sets the Standard

Dom’s parents met at Husson University in Bangor, both on basketball scholarships – she having been a white woman with many generations tied to Maine, and his father an African from the Ivory Coast.

Dom says he identifies strongly as a black man, not as bi-racial. While he got interested in science watching religiously PBS’s Nature, he did have opportunities in our country’s national parks through an outing club.

He was the only black child and teen in many situations. When he went to Colby College as a star sprinter and long jumper, he still did not experience much diversity there. It was when he got to DC, as an intern for the National Wildlife Federation and then later as a policy researcher at PEW, that he got a taste of real diversity.

“Sometimes as the only person of color in a room, I have to be aware I am not just representing myself, but my race, yet I don’t want to represent a group since that group is very diverse, too.”

Dom is aware that he can be put into situations of borderline tokenism, and that he has to understand that for younger people, seeing someone like him excel in the sciences gives younger people of color not only a role model but proof that there are inroads being made to accept a more diverse student body, faculty and scientific community.

“Diversity and inclusivity are almost buzz words these days,” he said. “Getting into a program like this one doesn’t solve all the problems. Half the battle is won, part of the systemic hurdle to overcome, but they have to make people of color feel valued and heard, so they will want to stay.”

Dom defends his thesis in December and says he wants to step back from academia for a while, hoping to work in a science policy arena, for a non-profit or governmental agency. He likens his work experience and academic background as a good foundation to be a “boundary spanner” – that is, someone working on scientific research but also developing public policy and drawing on his communications skills to be a workshop facilitator.

“I’ve always wanted to get into endangered species,” he said. “It is amazing, though, how much work goes into any one species, let alone the ecology as a whole where that species interacts with other species.”

One thing we can gather from Dom – he is highly motivated to understand “intersectionalities” in the environmental world. The sea otter seems like a talisman for him to move forward.

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Much like the rain forests of the Amazon, Kelp forests are considered by scientists to be one of the more effective sequesters of carbon dioxide. The linkage between sea otters, sea urchins, kelp forests and ultimately climate change mitigation are coming to the fore.

“A recent study shows kelp forests with higher sea otters present can absorb up to 12 times more CO2 from the atmosphere than if they were just left to the urchin explains the linkage between sea otters, sea urchins, kelp forests, and ultimately climate change mitigation,” according to the organization Friends of the Sea Otter.

Count Dominique, 28, as one of those sea otter’s friends.

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  1. Silent Spring Introduction, 1962

Much Ado About Nothing: Asking Who Won the Political Debates

It amazes me that alternative journalists would spend even a minute writing about the ongoing Democratic Party debates.  They are meaningless and they are not debates. How many times do we have to go through this ridiculous charade before this can be accepted once and for all?  The “debates” are farces, total theater, as are the Presidential elections. They don’t matter.  The political quiz show of duopoly is fixed.  Discussing who has won is the height of absurdity.  It legitimizes the system of oppressive duopoly.  It is political “jeopardy,” and only the fixers win when they suck us into watching and opining.  One expects the corporate media to do their jobs and drone on endlessly about nothing, but not those who oppose this anti-democratic sham.

Emma Goldman is alleged to have said, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”  She was right then and is right now. With the exception of JFK, who was assassinated by the national security state when in his last year he radically turned against its war agenda, not one American president since has posed the slightest risk to the systemic power of the elites who own and run the country. If anyone ever did, they would not be on the ballot or in office. Here and there, a candidate running for the nomination of one of the ruling parties makes it into a debate only to be marginalized for bluntly attacking war policies; e.g., Tulsi Gabbard in 2019.  Those who enjoy the support of capitalism’s invisible army (the CIA) and Wall Street’s corporate merchants of death are allowed to present nuanced “anti-war” positions that their backers know are lies but suckers bite on in their desperation to believe that the system works; e.g., Obama in 2008.

Because Emma Goldman opposed the U.S. war and conscription policies during World War I, she was charged and imprisoned under the Espionage Act in 1917, “for conspiring against the draft,” a form of state imposed slavery.  Like Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange, she was punished for telling the truth to the American people and the world. To contemplate their confinement in these prison hellholes sickens the soul.

When I was young and was seeking release from the Marine Corps as a conscientious objector, I spent quite some time pondering prison life, something I was expecting and preparing for but surprisingly avoided when the Commandant of the Marines released me so I could “take final vows in a religious order.”  It was an outright lie, something I never mentioned in my C.O. application, but it allowed them to save face while getting rid of a troublemaker.  Ironically, as a religious young man, I had often thought that the life of a Catholic priest or nun, in their respective celibate rooms in rectories or convents or monasteries, was similar to the life of a prisoner, and it struck me as very depressing.  Even a few years in a federal prison felt more liberating, so I steeled myself for that possibility by reading Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, and Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, among others, and disciplining myself physically, mentally, and spiritually for what never came to pass.

Now the world is our prison, as John Berger wrote in 2005 in a stunning article with the understated yet hopeful title, “Meanwhile.”  Because he was not caged by traditional categories of conventional thought but just wrote, trusting that words were winged creatures that rise and fly out of sentences into the unknown, Berger was able to discover truths that many feel but cannot articulate.  Often referred to as a Marxist art critic, such a description fails to capture the liberated nature of his writing, even when he is describing how we are imprisoned:

I’m searching for words to describe the period of history we’re living through.  To say it is unprecedented means little because all periods were unprecedented since history was first discovered….The landmark that I’ve found Is that of a prison.  Nothing less.  Across the planet we are living in a prison….No, it’s not a metaphor, the imprisonment is real, but to describe it one has to think historically….Today the purpose of most prison walls (concrete, electronic patrolled or interrogatory) is not to keep prisoners in and correct them, but to keep prisoners out and exclude them….In the eighteenth century, long-term imprisonment was approvingly defined as a punishment of ‘civic death.’  Three centuries later, governments are imposing – by law, force, economic threats and their buzz – mass regimes of civic death….The planet is a prison and the obedient governments, whether of the right or left, are the herders [US prison slang for Jailers].

At the heart of this prison system is financial, not industrial, capitalism, and the system of globalization fueled by the Internet that allows speculative financial transactions to be continually performed instantaneously. Speed is the essence of cyberspace, a placeless “place” that allows this worldwide prison system to operate.  Space, time, nationalities, local traditions, and idiosyncrasies of any sort are washed away by this tyrannical flood of abstract power controlled by the jailers and their henchmen in and out of governments.  This planetary prison’s “allotted zones vary and can be termed worksite, refugee camp, shopping mall, periphery, ghetto, office block, favela, suburb.  What is essential is that those incarcerated in these zones are fellow prisoners.”

The prisoners that are us are often just dimly aware that they are prisoners, but dimly is better than unaware.  For the jailers also use cyberspace to misinform, confabulate, lie, confuse, and convince the prisoners that they are not in cells but are free on their cells and had better be on constant alert to protect themselves and get theirs, theirs always being some commodity, which comes in many forms, including political candidates, sometimes “new and improved” and sometimes just “bright and new.”  The prisoners are always free to choose more of the same, if they can be conned.  While everyone “knows” these candidates sell themselves and that’s what debates are about – “if you liked that (one), you will like this (one)” – the jailers create what Berger calls “a hallucinating paradox” that keeps the prison population believing that the rigged system somehow works for them since they are exceptions to the rule that renders others moronic suckers.

So the question – who won? – is a good one, if you are a sports fan, but not when applied to the Democratic (or Republican) candidates’ debates.  Better to sing “Mrs. Robinson” along with Simon and Garfunkel: “Going to the candidates’ debate/Laugh about it, shout about it/When you’ve got to choose/Every way you look at it you lose.”

Those writers who wish to help their fellow prisoners should refuse to be herded into doing the work of their jailers and using language in a way that suggests the game is not fixed and they are not being seduced, as Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), the recent Williams College graduate, willingly was by Mrs. Robinson in the 1967 film, The Graduate.  Ben may have been put off by the suggestion that his future lay in “One word: plastics,” but if he were graduating from Williams or any other elite college and university this year or in any of the past twenty-five, a top career choice, flashing dollar signs, would be in the financial “services” industry, where he could join the financial tyrants in the use of cyberspace to imprison most of the world.  Our universities have become human “resources” departments (as people have become commodified resources like copper or nickel) for financial capitalism and the whole complex that ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern calls “the Military-Industrial-Congressional-Intelligence-Media-Academe-Think-Tank (MICIMATT) complex, in which the corporate-controlled media play the sine-qua-non today.”

Alternative writers should refuse to rate the candidates or discuss their debates, but, like John Berger, think historically, structurally, and imaginatively, finding “enclaves of the beyond” for their fellow prisoners, little gifts, sunlight and blue sky through the jail cell’s window, not prizes for the winners.  That is not dissidence.

And while I am a harsh critic of the digital revolution, I realize Berger is right when he says:

Prisoners have always found ways of communicating with one another.  In today’s global prison, cyberspace can be used against the interests of those who first installed it.  Like this, prisoners inform themselves about what the world does each day, and they follow suppressed stories from the past, and so stand shoulder to shoulder with the dead.  In doing so, they rediscover little gifts, examples of courage, a single rose in a kitchen where there’s not enough to eat. Indelible pain, the indefatigability of mothers, laughter, mutual aid, silence, ever-widening resistance, willing sacrifice, more laughter….The messages are brief, but they extend in the solitude of their (our) nights.  The final guideline is not tactical but strategic.

“Meanwhile” is a hopeful word.  It implies that we are between times and the future is coming.  It can only be different if we do not play our jailors’ game, buy their lingo, and discuss the fixed quiz show that is American presidential politics.

“Liberty,” concludes Berger “is slowly being found not outside but in the depth of the prison.”

A Slow Death: The Ills of the Casual Academic

Any sentient being should be offended.  Eventually, the casualisation of the academic workforce was bound to find lazy enthusiasts who neither teach, nor understand the value of a tenured position dedicated to that musty, soon-to-be-forgotten vocation of the pedagogue.  It shows in the designs of certain universities who confuse frothy trendiness with tangible depth: the pedagogue banished from the podium, with rooms lacking a centre, or a focal point for the instructor.  Not chic, not cool, we are told, often by learning and teaching committees that perform neither task.  Keep it modern; do not sound too bright and hide the learning: we are all equal in the classroom, inspiringly even and scrubbed of knowledge.  The result is what was always to be expected: profound laziness on the part of instructors and students, dedicated mediocrity, and a rejection of all things intellectually taxing.

Casualisation, a word that says much in, and of, itself, is seen as analogue of broader outsourcing initiatives.  Militaries do it, governments do it, and the university does it.  Services long held to be the domain of the state, itself an animation of the social contract, the spirit of the people, have now become the incentive of the corporate mind, and, it follows, its associated vices.  The entire scope of what has come to be known as outsourcing is itself a creature of propaganda, cheered on as an opportunity drawing benefits rather than an ill encouraging a brutish, tenuous life.

One such text is Douglas Brown and Scott Wilson’s The Black Book of Outsourcing. Plaudits for it resemble worshippers at a shrine planning kisses upon icons and holy relics.  “Brown & Wilson deliver on the best, most innovative, new practices all aimed at helping one and all survive, manage and lead in this new economy,” praises Joann Martin, Vice President of Pitney Bowes Management Services.  Brown and Wilson take aim at a fundamental “myth”: that “Outsourcing is bad for America.”  They cite work sponsored by the Information Technology Association of America (of course) that “the practice of outsourcing is good for the US economy and its workers.”

Practitioners and policy makers within the education industry have become devotees of the amoral dictates of supply and demand, underpinned by an insatiable management class.  Central to their program of university mismanagement is the casual academic, a creature both embraced and maligned in the tertiary sectors of the globe.

The casual academic is meant to be an underpaid miracle worker, whose divining acts rescue often lax academics from discharging their duties. (These duties are outlined in that deceptive and unreliable document known as a “workplan”, as tedious as it is fictional.)  The casual academic grades papers, lectures, tutors and coordinates subjects.  The casual provides cover, a shield, and an excuse for a certain class of academic manager who prefers the calling of pretence to the realities of work.

Often, these casual academics are students undertaking a postgraduate degree and subject to inordinate degrees of stress in an environment of perennial uncertainty.  The stresses associated with such students are documented in the Guardian’s Academics Anonymous series and have also been the subject of research in the journal Research Policy.  A representative sample of PhD students studying in Flanders, Belgium found that one in two experienced psychological distress, with one in three at risk of a common psychiatric disorder.  Mental health problems tended to be higher in PhD students “than in the highly educated general population, highly education employees and higher education students.”

This is hardly helped by the prospects faced by those PhDs for future permanent employment, given what the authors of the Research Policy article describe as the “unfavourable shift in the labour-supply demand balance, a growing popularity of short-term contracts, budget cuts and increased competition for research sources”.

There have been a few pompom holders encouraging the casualisation mania, suggesting that it is good for the academic sector.  The explanations are never more than structural: a casual workforce, for instance, copes with fluctuating enrolments and reduces labour costs.  “Using casual academics brings benefits and challenges,” we find Dorothy Wardale, Julia Richardson and Yuliani Suseno telling us in The Conversation.  This, in truth, is much like suggesting that syphilis and irritable bowel syndrome is necessary to keep you on your toes, sharp and streamlined.  The mindset of the academic-administrator is to assume that such things are such (casualisation, the authors insist, is not going way, so embrace) and adopt a prostrate position in the face of funding cuts from the public purse.

Casualisation can be seen alongside a host of other ills.  If the instructor is disposable and vulnerable, then so are the manifestations of learning.  Libraries and research collections, for instance, are being regarded as deadening, inanimate burdens on the modern, vibrant university environment.  Some institutions make a regular habit of culling their supply of texts and references: we are all e-people now, bound to prefer screens to paper, the bleary-eyed session of online engagement to the tactile session with a book.

The casual, sessional academic also has, for company, the “hot-desk”, a spot for temporary, and all too fleeting occupation.  The hot-desk has replaced the work desk; the partitions of the office are giving way to the intrusions of the open plan. The hot-desker, like coitus, is temporary and brief. The casual academic epitomises that unstable reality; there is little need to give such workers more than temporary, precarious space.  As a result, confidentiality is impaired, and privacy all but negated.  Despite extensive research showing the negative costs of “hot-desking” and open plan settings, university management remains crusade bound to implement such daft ideas in the name of efficiency.

Casualisation also compounds fraudulence in the academy.  It supplies the bejewelled short cut route, the bypass, the evasion of the rigorous things in learning.  Academics may reek like piddling middle class spongers avoiding the issues while pretending to deal with them, but the good ones at least make some effort to teach their brood decently and marshal their thoughts in a way that resembles, at the very least, a sound whiff of knowledge.  This ancient code, tested and tried, is worth keeping, but it is something that modern management types, along with their parasitic cognates, ignore.  In Australia, this is particularly problematic, given suggestions that up to 80 percent of undergraduate courses in certain higher learning institutions are taught by casual academics.

The union between the spread sheet manager and the uninterested academic who sees promotion through the management channel rather than scholarship, throws up a terrible hybrid, one vicious enough to degrade all in its pathway. This sort of hybrid hack resorts to skiving and getting casuals to do the work he or she ought to be doing.  Such people co-ordinate courses but make sure they get the wallahs and helpers desperate for cash to do it. Manipulation is guaranteed, exploitation is assured.

The economy of desperation is cashed in like a reliable blue-chip stock: the skiver with an ongoing position knows that a casual academic desperate to earn some cash cannot dissent, will do little to rock the misdirected boat, and will have to go along with utterly dotty notions.  There are no additional benefits from work, no ongoing income, no insurance, and, importantly, inflated hours that rarely take into account the amount of preparation required for the task.

The ultimate nature of the casualisation catastrophe is its diminution of the entire academic sector.  Casuals suffer, but so do students.  The result is not mere sloth but misrepresentation of the worst kind: the university keen to advertise a particular service it cannot provide sufficiently. This, in time, is normalised: what would students, who in many instances may not even know the grader of their paper, expect?  The remunerated, secure academic-manager, being in the castle, can raise the drawbridge and throw the casuals to the vengeful crowd, an employment environment made safe for hypocrisy.